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Meeting Summary – Meeting of the Advisory Committee of Political Parties – April 20, 2009

Legal, regulatory and operational issues

Event Readiness

An update on Elections Canada readiness plans for the next general election was provided by Mr. Michel Roussel, Senior Director, Field Readiness and Event Management. Mr. Roussel briefed members on the readiness framework in place for September 1, 2009, to deliver a general election with similar features as the last one, while allowing room to make some targeted enhancements and focus on some strategic initiatives for the future, such as IT renewal and electronic registration. (See 41st General Election Readiness Chart for information on activities and milestones.)

Some ongoing activities for September 2009 include:

Members shared some thoughts on the challenges faced in staffing the polls on election day. It was pointed out that when staggered voting hours were introduced, an unforeseen consequence was the increased hours and workload, which turned away some workers. It was suggested that shift work be implemented or temporary relief staff be made available. The idea of establishing a pre-qualified pool of election officers was mentioned in addition to offering inter-election training. The recruitment of high school students was encouraged as well as joint training for working with both provincial and federal elections. Members were informed that the recruitment of election workers and potential partnerships and programs in this area would be on the agenda for this year's annual conference of Canadian Chief Electoral Officers (July 5–9, 2009, Banff, Alberta).

Accessibility

An update on accessibility plans was provided by Mr. Rennie Molnar, Associate Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Electoral Events. The main focus of the presentation was Elections Canada's five-year plan to lay the groundwork for electronic registration to be implemented in 2010, and electronic voting pilots for a by-election in 2013. It was noted that the Canada Elections Act requires that in order for an electronic voting process to be used for an official vote it must first receive approval from the Senate and House committees that normally consider these matters. It was pointed out that in both cases the technology exists and similar tools are already in use by banking institutions. It has also been shown that the public is gaining familiarity and trust in on-line services already provided by the Canada Revenue Agency and Statistics Canada (e.g. during census activities). Given that electronic registration and updating of elector information is already an option in some provinces, electronic registration systems would be designed and tested before moving to electronic voting.

Mr. Molnar clarified that voting machines like the ones used in the United States are not being considered. The members were informed that Elections Canada intends to give the ACPP a role in the design and testing of these initiatives. (See the Accessibility handout for more information on the vision, strategic objectives and initiatives of the plan.)

Members complimented Elections Canada on its bold objectives in this regard. The effect on turnout was questioned, given the expansion of voting opportunities over the last few years while turnout rates continue to decline. Demographic considerations were shared by members concerned that Internet access is still an issue in some rural areas in Canada. It was also mentioned that socio-economic differences would be exposed among those who do not own computers.

Members shared their concerns for the potential for fraud and the effect on the secrecy of the vote. The CEO told members that Elections Canada would only move forward if assured that the electronic systems would be secure, trustworthy and auditable. He told members that the process would be incremental and very rigorous. Public opinion would be gauged and efforts would be made so that an electronic process could be accessible to all electors. He also added that the process may not include the ability to vote from home, given privacy issues.

Key Results from 2008 Focus Groups with Official Agents and Financial Agents

Mr. François Bernier presented the key results from focus group sessions held with official agents and financial agents over the summer of 2008 in six major centres across Canada. The members were briefed on five key issues: the external auditor; tools, training and support; correspondence and communications with Elections Canada; the complexity of election financing rules; and the perceived gap between the legal responsibilities of official and financial agents and their authority within their organizations. Mr. Bernier told members that Elections Canada recognizes that the roles of official agents and financial agents present a unique challenge. To address this, Elections Canada may look at possible administrative changes and the CEO may choose to engage registered political parties in a collaborative effort.

Members agreed that because of the ever-increasing sophistication of the Act, there is much room for confusion among all the stakeholders implicated in the process. It was remarked that in some cases official agents have difficulty explaining the complex rules, and the fear persists that an oversight would cause them to bear severe consequences. Members urged Elections Canada to take an approach that stresses common sense and effectiveness in dealing with these issues; for example, to use clearer language in the instructional tools used for political financing matters. To some members, the official agent has essentially become an accountant and so, the need for both an official agent and a financial agent should be revisited.

Members took the opportunity to suggest that the tax credit provisions for political contributions are under-used and should be made better known to the public. Moreover, the meaning of the terms "unofficial receipt" and "tax receipt" need clarification by Elections Canada.

Mr. Bernier told members that matters raised during the focus groups are an ongoing issue and that ideas for resolution are being suggested, such as the possibility of a subsidy for official agents; a compliance allowance; or an audit exemption if less than a stated amount is spent. Members thought that changes to remuneration may entice prospective official agents and financial agents and may help retain those already being used. The CEO added that Elections Canada will produce a discussion paper to define the issue and formulate recommendations.